The mystery of Malaysia Airlines MH370 will continue for days, weeks and months.
The tragic loss of lives should be the biggest concern of everyone. But as a community of communicators and public relations professions, we’ve watched the crisis communications challenges fueled by non-stop media speculation.
Media even speculated about the harshness of a text message notification to family members, without any effort to verifying that the airline had, in fact, conducted a large number of personal meetings and personal phone calls to family members prior to sending a text message to those who could not be reached through meetings and phone calls.
The hoopla about the text message created enough of a crisis challenge on its own that the airline had to post a statement to its website explaining that the text was done only after other means of communications were used.
Ask any expert in global crisis communications how the airline should be communicating during its crisis and you will get varied opinions.
Having worked in Malaysia many times writing crisis communications plans and teaching media training, I would like to offer five things worth considering, should you face a prolonged crisis that draws global media attention.
Problem #1: Culture
Malaysian’s culture and religion are different from traditional western culture and religion. Their language also includes a mix of Malay, Mandarin Chinese and English. Prior to my trips, I’ve taken classes to help learn and respect their culture. I’ve even learned to speak some Malay.
Sadly, western media wants to play by western rules, often with little regard for the culture of another country. Media are not known to stop what they are doing to take cultural sensitivity classes. U.S. media can be especially pushy and overbearing. Chances are western media will not adjust to or fully respect Malaysia’s culture. Hence, if you work for the airline, you must be prepared to adjust to all of the many global media outlets and their ways. This is no easy task.
Accomplishing this means that long before you ever have a global crisis, you need to write a crisis communications plan that takes this into account. Next, you need to practice it at least once a year in a crisis communications drill until you are an expert communicator and public relations professional. The drill will also help your leaders better understand what they will face during a crisis, provided your drill includes intense mock media and mock news conferences.
Problem #2: Joint Information Centers (JICs)
In the U.S., when your corporation has to share the stage, microphone and crisis with government agencies, often all parties agree to set up a Joint Information Center (JIC). Often, the government agencies want to take the lead and usually corporations are too willing to let the investigating agencies bear the burden of the media interviews. This usually happens because the corporation has failed to write a good crisis communications plan, they have failed to train their spokesmen, and they have failed to hold annual crisis communications drills. Due to their failures—all of which could have been avoided—they capitulate to government agencies, praying the government agencies have good spokesmen.
I despise when this is done. I especially despise when a corporation depends entirely on government representatives to communicate.
Consider that government agencies cannot and will not communicate empathy to the affected parties. Their communications is only about the issues related to their investigation and fact gathering. Government agencies have a different communications motive than the affected company. Only the offending party—in this case the airline—can adequately communicate empathy to the family members of passengers.
You have an obligation to media train your spokesmen to the highest level so they can hold their own in a news conference.
Problem #3: Separate media from grieving families
Never house family members in a building or hotel where the media has easy access to them. Crying family members amid the media makes for a great story for the media and a horrible story for your company.
When I was a reporter, I hated talking to family members in situations like this. I recall covering the derailment of an Amtrak passenger train with a high fatality count. The train plunged off of a bridge late one night and the passengers were trapped in the rail cars deep in a river. Family members were holding out hope that there were air pockets with people alive in the cars, just as Malaysian Airline families are holding out hope that their family members are alive somewhere on a remote island.
In the story I was covering, the trauma went on for days, with Amtrak housing the families in the lobby of a hotel with us—the media. The families never got a break from the cameras and the microphones and our producers kept asking for more interviews. Amtrak looked bad every time someone fell to pieces emotionally in the hotel lobby.
If your company might face this type of crisis with a high fatality count, your crisis communications team must work with your risk management team to identify, in advance, facilities where families can be housed without the media being anywhere around.
Problem #4: Brute force never plays well in front of the press
When Malaysian authorities hauled away a grieving family member earlier this week, it made a bad situation look worse. Authorities lost their cool. This happens all over the world. When they lose their cool, authorities seldom ask, “How will this play on TV?” This is one more reason to follow the advice above to keep the families separate from the media.
My experience in Malaysia assures me there are many gated resorts that the airline could take over as their base for families. These resorts have sleeping accommodations, restaurants and beaches. Malaysia Airlines should be using one of these resorts. The risk management team should be prepared to buy out the entire resort, keeping families content behind gates, keeping the media on the other side.
Problem #5: Manage speculation with more spokesman
In an ongoing crisis like this, the media lack facts, so they turn to third party experts and ask speculative questions to get speculative answers. If your company is the offending company, you need to have highly trained spokesmen speaking on behalf of your company in every country where your customers have a presence. Those trained representatives need to:
A.) state the obvious facts in well worded quotes
B.) constantly communicate empathy and what is being done for the families
C.) constantly discourage speculation
If we look at the Malaysian Airlines case study, speculation has been generated by:
A.) an oil slick near Vietnam
B.) debris at sea near China
C.) possible debris spotted by Australia
D.) rumors that the plane landed safely on some remote airstrip
E.) rumors about the pilots and their routes.
When you fail to provide good information in a crisis, the media fill the void with speculation.
Never believe that any crisis is too big or too complicated to prepare for. You can prepare a crisis communications plan that will address every scenario you may face. Your crisis communications plan can have an addendum of pre-written news releases and media advisories for even an extended crisis like Malaysian Airlines. You can test your crisis communication team, your crisis management team and your spokesmen with a crisis communications drill annually. You can conduct media training annually for everyone who may have to serve as a spokesman.
This isn’t rocket science, but it does require a commitment from the public relations team and from the leadership team.
So, will you prepare and perform flawlessly or will you leave everything to chance?